Pirke Avot 2:21

The rabbi said:

You are not required to complete the task, yet you are not free to withdraw from it.

If you have studied much Torah, they give you great reward; and your Employer can be relied upon to pay you the wage of your labor, but be aware that the reward of the righteous will be given in the World to Come.

You are not required to complete the task, yet you are not free to withdraw from it. This is an interesting and very appropriate piece of wisdom for us in the world today.

Let’s start with the task – what are we talking about?  Am I not free to withdraw from one or more of the tasks of daily life – washing the dishes, walking the dog etc.?  Am I not free to quit the committee assignment I accepted 10 years ago at church / synagogue?  Am I not free to tell the boss that the new project she has just handed me is one too many for me to handle?

We resent, these days, anyone telling us that we have to do something.  With each of the examples given above I think that the rabbi would agree that we are, in fact, free to withdraw from those tasks – although HOW we withdraw and what arrangements we might make to make sure that the task does actually get taken on by another would matter.

But the rabbi is speaking in much larger terms.  The task he has in mind is our individual personal spiritual quest for relationship with the LORD.  A quest that involves study of the Torah / scriptures, prayer, worship, community with others, acts of loving-kindness towards others and more.

This task can seem so overwhelming sometimes that we turn away from it and lose ourselves in what seems to be more manageable – making money, getting that promotion at work, etc..   But, says the rabbi – we are not free to do this.  In doing so we abandon our true selves and our true life for something that is shallow and an imitation of real life that lacks substance.  In the end, such a life will result in regrets and a sense of loss.

Mother Theresa, a Roman Catholic nun who worked in India with the poorest of the poor as they died, famously said: ” I am not called to be successful, I am called to be faithful.”    I think that this expresses what the rabbi had in mind for us.

If you have studied much Torah, they give you great reward. The rabbinic commentary on this line indicates that it is the effort we exert on the quest that matters most – not our accumulated knowledge.  Even the greatest and most diligent scholars will have large gaps in their knowledge.   It is in the quest itself and our efforts that we are greatly rewarded – the reward is really an authentic life, a life in communion with the LORD and others.

Your Employer can be relied upon to pay you the wages of your labor, but the reward of the righteous will be given in the World to Come.  Our Employer with a capital E is, of course, the LORD.  As creator and sustainer of the universe the LORD has given us life and a nature and a task.

One reward, I think, of taking on our task was mentioned above – the reward of living an authentic life.  I don’t think this can be emphasized enough.  When we get to the end of our life, whether it is long or short, if we are full of regrets – “I worked too much and spent too little time with my family”, “I wish I had reconciled with my family…”, etc. – then we lived an inauthentic life.   If we get to the end of our lives and we are at peace with ourselves, our families, and the LORD – then we lived an authentic life.  That, to me, is a big deal.

But even beyond that, we have our Jewish and Christian belief in a world to come.  A world that remains a mystery, remains hidden right now.  We can taste it in authentic relationships and study, in community and in worship – but it remains over the horizon.  We do not have to speculate as to what happens to those who are inauthentic or sinful – we can focus on our deep hope and trust in the LORD that those who have been faithful will be rewarded.